I loved my grandfather. He was a character. He was full of life and fun and hard work.
Grandpa loved to talk. Talking was how he made his way in the world.
Grandpa understood that information is currency. He collected information actively, every day, from any source. He knew people; he knew where to get things. And he shared that information with others. If you needed something, talk to George; he always knew a guy.
Plenty of people can talk; Grandpa’s gift was that he made talking interesting. He had style. He was entertaining. He was funny, at least to a kid, and to many people. Some others probably found him tiresome.
Grandpa was a product of pre-World War II America – the frontier, the Great War and the Depression. Parts of Grandpa’s childhood were spent in Texas and Kentucky. He lived his entire adult life in Buffalo.
I knew Grandpa only after World War II, and the cultural divide sometimes was shocking to me. Grandpa’s Buffalo was populated with polacks and wops and krauts. Those were words that I heard occasionally from him or at school, but never at home. This was the 1950s, and Mom and Dad knew better. They tried to make a home that was free from racial and ethnic prejudice.
Grandpa knew better, too, but he bristled under the imposition of what no doubt seemed to him to be mid-20th Century political correctness. After all, didn’t a lot of Polish people refer to themselves and friends as polacks? Didn’t the Italians in town call themselves dagos or wops? Grandpa had heard it night after night at the Genesee Arcade, the bowling alley he owned on Buffalo’s east side in the 30s.
In the early 1940s, the bowling alley was destroyed by fire. Grandpa didn’t rebuild; instead, Grandpa retired and built a house in Eggertsville, a block from Main and Bailey, the city line. Five years later, my parents built a house in Eggertsville, two blocks away.
African Americans were a tiny part of Buffalo’s population until the 1940s, when job opportunities attracted a large influx of black people. About the time the Genesee Arcade burned, Buffalo’s east side was becoming (and remains) the black ghetto, and Grandpa’s white, ethnic clientele fled to the suburbs. I have no doubt that Grandpa’s decision not to rebuild, his decision to retire and move to Eggertsville, was white flight. Why else leave his native city? Why else move as close to Buffalo as possible, without actually being in the city? Amherst and Eggertsville succeeded in keeping blacks out for decades. That’s how I came to grow up in an all-white community and to go to all-white schools.
One day Grandpa was visiting someone he knew on Main Street, a couple of blocks from our house. I tagged along. I was probably six or seven years old. It was a nice old house, a couple doors north of Sacred Heart Academy, the local girls Catholic high school. The house was on a deep, double lot, with plenty of open lawn and trees on one side of the house. Grandpa and his host were sitting in Adirondack chairs in the yard, talking. I was entertaining myself nearby, but I was within earshot and listening. I was always listening.
I don’t recall what they were discussing, but completely casually and in context Grandpa described something as being “black as a nigger’s heel.” Alarms went off in my head. Didn’t he know he wasn’t supposed to use that word? I knew the word, knew what it meant, used it myself once in a while to be one of the guys, both before and after that day. But something more important was going on, a message was being transmitted between them, and whether they knew it or not, to me, as well. The simile itself didn’t even make sense – the point was that something was the deepest, blackest black; no African American heel is that color. No, the simile was a gratuitous opportunity to reaffirm and cement the white notion that black people are something less. They’re still property, they’re less than children. I heard it, heard it only once, never forgot it.
My childhood was seasoned with events like that. I would guess yours was, too – black or white, we all had those events. And so we were acculturated, all of us. We can disavow those words, we can claim we’d never use them, we can disdain those who do, but we’ve been shaped throughout our lives by those words and words like them. We were trained to be racists just like we were trained to wear blue jeans.
There’s a suitcase somewhere in my brain that is full of memories and lessons learned. I find myself looking for those events in my memory. What else did I see and hear that shaped who I am and how I relate to others? I search with trepidation, because I know I might find things I’d now rather not know, things that might make me uncomfortable and ashamed.
I’ve come to understand that I don’t need to examine every single item in my racial baggage. It is part of who I am, and at this point in my life I can’t reform myself completely. It’s enough just to take a few peaks and acknowledge that it’s there and that other things that I don’t see also are there. Once I know it’s there, visible or hidden, I can begin to act affirmatively against racism when I see it.